On Ferguson, and Equality in Life and Death

Photo by Flickr user Light Brigading

Photo by Flickr user Light Brigading

“I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies to the family of Michael Brown. As I’ve said in the past, I know that regardless of the circumstances, they experienced the loss of a loved one to violence, and I know that the pain that accompanies such a loss knows no bounds.”

Before the minute was up, St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch turned his attention from empty platitudes to social media. For the next two minutes and 24 seconds, he issued what would be the first of many attempts to dismiss and discredit witness testimony and media reports, and all who mourned and mourn the death of Michael Brown.

McCulloch has been soundly and rightly eviscerated for Monday’s press conference, so I won’t belabor the point. What has been less talked about is that what Bob McCulloch did in those opening three minutes is played out on a national stage each and every day. Confronted by systemic trauma, and a level of grief that is generations in the making, we offer perfunctory expressions of sympathy, and ask for silence in return. Just as we are not treated equally in life, we are not treated equally in death.

Between 2005-2012, nearly two black men a week were killed by white policemen in the US, according to a report by USA Today: a statistic that’s likely dwarfed by reality, given that we have no federal database on the number of deadly police shootings, and accurate numbers are consequently hard to come by. A study by Pro-Publica found that young black males were 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts. On Sunday, a 12-year-old African American boy was shot in the stomach and killed, when Cleveland police mistook his toy gun for a real one.

Among those who’ve lived through loss, the experience of having a friend or colleague express quick words of sympathy before immediately changing the subject is one that is all too familiar. To families and entire communities left in a perpetual cycle of compounded grief, we offer platitudes and sympathy: empty words designed to fill the silence, before we change the subject.

That ours is a nation that is profoundly uncomfortable with grief and death is hardly news. But the roots of what’s happening in Ferguson, and our failure to acknowledge the pounding grief that is, for many people of color in America, part of a daily reality, lay somewhere else entirely.

I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about and writing about loss, and I work with and alongside many others who are doing the same. I can say with some confidence that vulnerability is newly in vogue, and that conversations about death and dying are opening up as never before. Yet those efforts -- our efforts -- too often ignore a central fact: we cannot talk about poverty, race, systems-failure, or opportunity in America without talking about grief. And we cannot talk about grief without talking about those for whom grief is the product, not of one loss or of several losses, but of countless losses, born out daily in the streets and sustained over generations. The story of Mike Brown, and the decision of a grand jury not to indict the police officer who shot him, demands we ask whose deaths and whose grief we choose to take seriously.

I understand how easy it is to stay silent on the subject, to believe it is better to say nothing at all. I do not know what it is to be met with distrust each time I step into an elevator, or a clothing store. I do not know what it is to raise a child whose safety on the streets is at constant risk due to the color of his skin. I do know what it is to experience the combination of acute pain and overwhelming numbness that so often accompanies loss. But I do not know what it is like to live with that combination day in and day out, as each loss compounds in the wake of chronic, complex, and collective trauma.

But I do know that the minute we begin to “other” each other, to think that because we don’t know what to say, it is better to say nothing at all, we deny each other a voice and a chance to be seen and to be heard. I do know that such silences become yet another way of silencing each other, of ignoring systemic abuses, of perpetuating the status quo.

There are no words that will give Leslie McSpadden her son back. But her grief can be witnessed. We can acknowledge the raw, visceral anguish of a mother, whose unarmed son was shot “six or seven times,” in McCulloch’s words, and we can do so without averting our gaze. And we can sit with the collective rage and historic grief erupting on the streets of Ferguson and cities across the country, without changing the subject.  

Posted on November 26, 2014 .